Tips for Making your South America Backpacking Itinerary A LOT Easier

Planning is the hardest part of traveling. There are two types of people: bad last-minute planners and good ones — because we’ve had lots of practice already. Good planning somehow leads us to some pretty cool places and see a lot of amazing sights, and without a planning though, I ended up chattering my teeth on a -8 degree Celsius night at Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia waiting for the sunrise to the next destination…

So! Here are some tips for planning your South America backpacking in the smoothest way possible to avoid any unpleasant surprises. 😉

Tip #1: Study the map 

To start off, I love having a hand-drawn map next to me while planning my trip. By this we get a picture of what the travel route/itinerary might look like. Pinpoint Machu Picchu in Peru, Copacabana Beach in Brazil, Atacama Desert in Chile, Torres del Paine in Argentina and any other must-do and must-see places as you go through the reviews and information. This can be a full-time job in itself to keep an eye on all the different wonders that South America has to offer. But, once you’re done with having all the dots connected, the sense of achievement is exhilarating! Your long awaited trip is finally getting real! By the way, ideal because you would be improving as you meet people along your trip which will be discussed later.

Note: Draw your map with a “pen” and the location names and dots with a “pencil”, you will thank me later (if you are a nitpicker like me) for not needing to erase and rewrite, erase and rewrite again while filling up your map.

Tip #2: Look at the transportation

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Photo: Crossing the border from Salta, Argentina to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

Transportation in South America is relatively EXPENSIVE. 90% or above of the backpackers will travel between cities and countries by overnight buses. Budget airline is somehow non-existent to the continent. A one-way ticket from Puerto de Iguazú to Salta, Argentina (1,437 km) will cost you around USD 300 while USD 100 by bus. That is… forget about EUR 30 Paris to Italy (1,428 km) tickets and let’s get down to business!

At this planning step, booking your one-way or round-trip ticket to South America is enough. Most of the buses’ websites offer online booking but please note they do not always arrive as scheduled and some of the time with huge delays, this happens less when it comes to international buses. Patience is the key. Even in peak seasons, you can still get your tickets at the counter easily — of course not on last-minute.

South America long-haul buses offer an extensive selection of bus seats/services and fares: Clásico, Semicama, Ejecutivo, Cama y Premium depending on the bus company; or Convencional, Executivo, Leito in Brazil. Most of the overnight buses provide “in-flight meal” but better to check when you book your tickets as for shorter journeys food is not always served. However, in Brazil, food is definitely not provided rather they make stops at gas station snack bars and often restaurants where you purchase your own.

On a side note:
– In Argentina, it is customary to tip the luggage handler a couple of pesos when they load your bag on the bus and again when they take it off.
– In Bolivia, all passengers boarding buses that are leaving from a bus terminal must pay a “departure tax” before being permitted to board, usually about BOB 2.

Tip #3: Check the weather

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Photo: Zoom in for our chapped lips, our smiles hurt under -10 degrees at Tatio Geysers!

This is thoroughly about WHAT TO WEAR AND BRING. South America has a wide-range of climates, but never had I thought I would be experiencing a freezing summer of -10 degrees at Tatio Geysers, Chile due to its high elevation of 4,321 MASL; meanwhile just hours of flight away, there is a melting summer of 40 degrees at Copacabana Beach, Brazil. So, check the weather of each location before and prepare your clothing and gear accordingly.

Most importantly, no matter whether it is a -10 or 40 degree summer bring the BEST MOISTURIZER AND LIP-BALM! It will come in handy when you start getting cracked skin, ravaged cuticles, chapped and bleeding lips. O-u-c-h! However, in case you’ve really forgotten, fret not, in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia and Atacama Desert, Chile it is common to see travel-mates sharing theirs — if they do luckily have one. Pray.

Lastly, don’t stress yourself too much on packing. It is easy for us to forget we live in a modern yet globalised world. Let’s be frank, most of the places you’d be visiting are touristic sites where you will see locals doing everything possible to cater towards visitors like you. It’s cold outside, you have ladies selling a beautiful alpaca print jacket for USD 14. Moisturizing products from Vaseline, Avene, St. Ives are on the drugstore’s shelfs at Atacama Desert. Of course this is not recommended, in major hub cities the price might be okay, but in more isolated destinations – like in a desert – things tend to be more pricey. What I’m trying to say is, do not overpack, believe me you will be happier travelling as light as possible. Packing the “essentials” will be just enough,  in the worst-case scenario, you can buy it from locals.

Tip #4: Talk to tour guides and other travellers along your way

Most of the time, I would just strike up a conversation with an uncle or auntie sitting next to me on the way to our next destination. They are so friendly to talk with and kind to share the culture and history of the city. Other than that, I will tend to hover at the reception after paying for my stays at the hostels or my tours at the travel agencies, but also the free-walking tour guides, since they are all more experienced than anyone else in sharing this information to every other traveler who comes through about what to see in their city. You can’t miss from learning from the person who knows it best, right?

Backpackers along the way are good source for information too. They are happy to share with you tips for planning your next destination. What’s the weather like, how to make your next leg to the place, where to stay: a party hostel or a tranquil hostel,…  Most of all, they can tell you some “breaking news” you need to know before heading out. I was lucky to be told that there was a protest happening at the border between Peru and Chile before buying my cross-border bus ticket. Imagine if I had’t been informed? My God.

Well, we can get all source of first-hand and reliable information once we arrive, but that doesn’t mean we drag our feet and wait around for ideas to come to us. It is always better to do a little homework before we take our trip. Likewise it is always great to know a little bit of the place to bring some organisation, security and comfort with you.

Nonetheless keep in mind, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry! Don’t get too involved in planning, leave some room for new plans and spontaneous ideas — those are the best!

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Alpaca says, BUEN VIAJE and HAPPY TRAVELS! 🙂

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